The girls' lives were imperiled; who would save them?
Headmaster Percy Blackburn took his spectacles off and polished them with a white cotton handkerchief he kept in his pocket. He repeated this habit often, which signaled to the girls of the Chiller’s School for Young Women that he was agitated, upset over some trivial action or some perceived transgression from one of his charges. Euphemia Wood, his assistant, would immediately fetch him a glass of gin or absinthe in response. It was a habit that repeated itself often.
It didn’t take much for Master Blackburn to discipline the girls; these often-wayward girls were orphaned or unwanted and had nowhere else to go, a fact he reminded them often. No other males entered the building except for Simeon or his brother Anton who brought the firewood and other sundries. Blackburn knew this and took advantage of the girls’ misfortune and isolation each chance he had. He kept a belt hanging on a hook near the dining hall and another by the dormitory to remind them what would happen if any of them were to step out of line. Norah, with her dark hair and fiery eyes, had seen it before.
In the first week Norah attended the school, she made friends with Zadie, an affable girl with the bluest eyes and long blond hair. They sat together at meals and worked at chores together, scrubbing floors, cleaning dishes, washing and hanging laundry. Laundry afforded them the only time they could enjoy fresh air outside the stifling building. Laughing while they worked, time passed more gently, more serene. Zadie told Norah, “I will always take care of you. You are my only true friend here.”
Norah replied, “And I will look after you.”
While hanging sheets one morning, Master Blackburn barked Zadie’s name which made her jump and tip the basket of freshly washed sheets over the sand and grass. The scowl on Master Blackburn’s face made Norah fearful for her friend, and she quickly gathered the sheets together to rinse them again as Zadie made her way quickly up the hill toward the largest brownstone in the darker side of Stepney.
Norah finished rinsing the laundry using water from the shared well on the edge of the property. She carefully pinned the sheets on the lines and finished the rest of her assigned laundry as she waited hours for Zadie to come back. The dinner bell rang, and still no sign of her friend. She sat at her place at the table across from Pearl and Lillian, scanning the room, the doorways, looking for sign of her friend. Pearl asked Norah, “Zadie?”
“I do not know where she is. She was called by Master Blackburn just before noon, and I have not seen her since,” Norah replied.
Pearl exchanged glances with Lillian. “Most likely Zadie will not return. She has been a bit of a thorn in Master Blackburn’s side, and Mrs. Wood has had problems with her.” As Pearl finished her sentence, Mrs. Wood came around to the girls to dish out a gray-green soup for them. Pearl smiled and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Wood.” She nudged Norah under the table to do the same.
“Thank you, Mrs. Wood,” Norah repeated. She looked down at the lentil soup and though she was famished, her appetite had diminished.
“You must eat. There are no other choices, and you have to keep your health up,” Lillian. “It doesn’t look like much, but it’s all we get. There is much to do around here.” She picked up a spoon and began to eat the vile stuff.
Norah picked up her spoon and took a hesitant mouthful. The awful taste lingered in her mouth like a dead mouse. “What will happen to Zadie?” She felt pity and sadness emanating from the girls. “Will she be all right? When will we see her again?”
Lillian continued. “We do not know what happens, but when a girl is called into Master Blackburn’s study, she does not return.”
Norah felt ill.
That was six months ago, and Zadie never returned. Norah remained friends with Pearl and Lillian, and the small group was joined by Charlotte, Estelle, and Margaret. Sometimes the girls had a quiet word with Simeon or Anton if they were alone. Simeon was quite tall for his age and muscular from chopping firewood and manual labor. Anton, the older brother, was smart and did well in school; he hoped to become a schoolmaster one day. The conversations with the girls were short and infrequent as the they were not allowed to speak to anyone outside the orphanage other than the Master Blackburn and Mrs. Wood.
Master Blackburn had twenty-five wards in his care, and the Crown paid him handsomely for his efforts. His clothing was of the highest quality with his formal waistcoat and jacket with the stiff collar, always starched, always in black. A silver pocket watch dangled from his pocket to his waistcoat button, supplying the time of day he should attempt to smile. The building, however, needed repairs, and the girls’ pinafores and smocks were worn and patched. Since the girls did not appear in public, there was no need for fancy bonnets or new shoes. The money to improve the lives of the girls simply vanished.
Master Blackburn ensured Mrs. Wood was as elegantly dressed as he, with her full skirt and crinoline, a whalebone corset, and an overdone bustle to complete the look. The girls despised Mrs. Wood, and made fun of her name, mocking Master Blackburn: “Euphemia, Wood you come hither?” and “Wood you, my dear, remove my breeches?” “Let us Burn the Wood.” The girls giggled as they knew full well Blackburn did not treat women with respect; he commanded them to do his bidding, and they in turn understood the consequences if they did not. Mrs. Wood, of course, was allowed much more freedom as his illicit consort and was a cruel mistress to the girls. It was she who often fabricated stories of misbehavior that resulted in severe punishment being doled out. It was Norah’s turn to become Mrs. Wood’s target.
“Norah! Why are there still visible stains across the sheets? Did you even use soap to remove these?” Mrs. Wood held up a folded sheet for further scrutiny. “It seems you spend more time gabbing with the others instead of doing your chores properly,” she spit out at Norah. “I am afraid I must let Master Blackburn know about your lack of attention to your chores.” She turned abruptly and left the girl alone.
Norah was petrified. She quickly finished putting away the laundry and clothes in the dormitory when Master Blackburn appeared with Mrs. Wood by his side. Pearl and Charlotte looked at Norah. “Norah, into my study now.” Pearl pulled Estelle into view, and they all watched Norah leave the dorm, their hearts heavy knowing their friend would probably not return.
Mrs. Wood escorted Norah down the long hall of framed portraits and unlit candelabra into the far end of the house. Master Blackburn followed. Through tall iron doors they entered, and the echoes of their footsteps died within the room. In Master Blackburn’s study, the high-ceilinged walls were embellished with red and gold flocked designs, the windows darkened with heavy damask curtains, producing a gloomy effect and sense of dread. The room smelled vaguely of stale pipe tobacco and bitterness. His imposing desk rested directly beneath a painting of Master Chiller, his father-in-law whose name adorned the school. There were busts of Poseidon and Zeus whose nakedness made Norah uncomfortable. In front of the desk was a large chest of the same length made of deep cherry wood and further decorated with Greek designs. The ornate brass lock on the front of the chest had a key in it, and it sat squarely on a large ostentatious red and gold oriental rug. Master Blackburn nodded to Mrs. Wood, and she promptly turned and left the room.
“Mrs. Wood mentioned that you are neglecting your chores. Is this true?” Master Blackburn pushed Norah down into an empty chair nearest the chest.
Norah did not know how to reply. “I know not. I have done my best.”
Master Blackburn sat behind his desk for a moment, drumming his fingers together. “Chilling’s School for Young Women has been held in esteem with the highest expectations that we have built over the years. There is no room for disobedience.” He poured absinthe from a French bottle into a small glass, swirling the light green liquid.
“But I-“ Norah protested.
“Silence, you insolent dolt!” Master Blackburn stared at Norah. “You will not interrupt. You will not speak unless spoken to.” He smiled a little, revealing small, crooked teeth. He took a sip of absinthe. “And you will not cause another moment’s lack of endeavor to remain a stain on this institution.” He set his drink down, stood up and removed his jacket, and placed it over his chair. “You see, we have strict rules that must be adhered to at all times. Neglecting laundry could create a problem at inspection time, you see.” He moved around to the front of his desk and turned the lock on the chest and revealing the empty space inside. “And when problems arise, we must take care of them.”
Norah was not fast enough to evade Master Blackburn’s grasp as he picked her up and dropped her brusquely into the chest, slamming it shut. He fastened the lock and turned the key. “This,” he droned, “is how we take care of problems. If you should make a noise, I will take two more girls.”
Norah used her fists uselessly pushing at the top of the lid, willing her mouth to remain closed as tears burned the side of her face. The darkness of the chest scared her, and her heart pounded in fear. Master Blackburn’s study was at the far end of the institution where no one would hear her even if she were to scream, she thought. She would die there. She called out again but to no one, for the room was the empty, and she heard the iron doors locked. The chest grew warm with her panicked breathing, and she closed her eyes to make the darkness go away. She thought of her friends, she thought of Zadie.
Zadie! This is where she must have perished. She called out to her, crying, her hands scratched from the rough wood inside the chest.
A voice beckoned. Hush, Norah. Hush.
Norah stopped moving. There was no one else in the room.
That’s a good girl. I’ve missed you, Norie.
“Zadie?” Norah whispered. Zadie was the only girl who called her Norie. “Is that you? Where are you?”
That is difficult to answer. I do not know where I am, either, but I know I am with you now. In the chest.
Norah felt around; perhaps there was a false bottom or side where another person could be hidden. Her hands found no openings, no hinges, no other person in the chest.
Norah, Master Blackburn has murdered many of us. You are next. You are also lucky. Silence filled the tiny space.
Norah thought about that. “How am I lucky if I am to die here?”
The voice whispered he did not attempt to have his way with you. But I have a plan.
Suppressing the bile in her throat, Norah whispered, “Are you a ghost?”
I am a spirit. I am stuck here for now. Close your eyes.
And my spirit is infused within you. Norah felt a heaviness, a presence – something she did not understand – as if she were suddenly carrying a weight, the burden of a thousand nights. In her mind she heard Zadie’s voice: Reach down with your right hand. Slide it carefully along the side. You will feel a hair pin wedged in the wood. Pick it out.
Norah followed the directions that were in now in her head.
With this pin, you can pick at the lock from the inside. You are small enough to do this. I was not.
Using her left hand, Norah took the pin and pushed it into the lock. The lock didn’t have palpable openings; it was oval and flat on the face. She kept moving the pin, and on the side, she discovered a slight opening. She pushed the pin into the opening, jabbing and poking for a good amount of time. She almost gave up, but then she heard the key pop out from the outside of the chest.
Good. Now you just push the lever that recedes into the lock. That will open it, the voice said.
Norah pushed the lever and heard a loud click. She directed her eyes at the lid and pushed it open. The light and fresh air overwhelmed her. Holding on to the edge of the chest, she stood up, unsteady from her incarceration. The voice continued, Close the chest. Hide in the wardrobe over there. Master Blackburn won’t return for another two weeks as he did for me, but Simeon will come in to tend the fireplace. We can seek his help then.
“We?” Nora asked. “What does that mean?”
That means, the voice echoed in her head, I am not dead yet. My body still breathes but barely. It lies in the deepest chambers below with the others that did not make it.
Norah’s eyes opened as she felt many different emotions flowing through her. Fear, sadness, innocence, agony, sorrow, and anger finally centering inside her. How many girls have died? Why?
The gentle voice inside her head said money. He does it for the money. He gets paid for forty girls, but many are no longer here. He pockets the difference.
Norah scanned the room and located a letter opener on the desk. She kept it with her for protection as she opened the door to the wardrobe and sat down, closing the door behind her. There was a night shirt she folded and used as a pillow and leaned against the back. She nodded off, exhausted from the flood of emotions and memories that didn’t belong to her. Through Zadie’s eyes in the twilight kingdom, she could see the other girls, as young as ten and as old as Zadie, who was sixteen, laughing while completing their chores, which turned out to be their only sin. The image changed, and she could see them lying in rows in pine boxes underneath the building. When the coffins made a loud noise, she woke up and realized someone else in the room.
She peered through the tiny opening where the doors came together and recognized Simeon. Norah slowly opened the wardrobe, letter opener at her side, and spoke Simeon’s name. Startled, he picked up a fireplace poker and aimed it squarely at Norah. Seeing her, he put it down quickly. “Begging your pardon, Miss. I did not see that it was you.”
Norah dropped the letter opener, put aside customary greetings, and quickly ran into Simeon’s arms, all her words rushing out at once. “Master Blackburn put me in that horrid chest and planned to kill me. He’s killed others. They’re in the basement.”
“Hold on, Miss Norah. Shhh, calm down,” he murmured as Norah sobbed.
“There’s little time left. We must save Zadie. She’s downstairs.”
At Zadie’s name, Simeon pulled her apart. “But you just said-“
“I know. It’s difficult to explain,” she pleaded. “We must go now!”
Together they took a hidden stairwell down to the basement, damp and filled with cobwebs, old barrels of ale, broken bottles, cords of firewood, and piles of clothing. Dampness and desperation hung from the walls as little sunlight shone through the dirty windows across the top of the basement. Nothing else lay in the basement. Simeon quietly stated what was obvious. “There’s nothing else here, Miss Norah.”
In Norah’s head, Zadie said there’s a room at the north end with bar across it. We’re in there. There’s not much time. Norah said, “Over there. There’s a door. They’re in there.”
Looking down at the end of the long room, they saw there was indeed a door. As they headed in that direction, they heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Mrs. Wood, candle in hand, saw the two and urgently shouted up the stairs, “Percy! Here! Come quickly!”
Norah and Simeon ran toward the far door, and Simeon lifted the heavy bar across the entrance. Norah nimbly pulled open the door. They gasped at what they beheld. They counted twenty-seven pine boxes stacked up five deep, with the newest one not stacked up yet. The stench of rotting corpses filled their nostrils as the phantasm of decay and despair escaped the room of nightmares.
Another set of footsteps neared the bottom of the stairwell. Simeon turned to face them, angered beyond his control. “What kind of monster are you? You killed all these girls?” Simeon headed toward Master Blackburn and Mrs. Wood as they started backing up the stairs. “You cannot-“ Simeon began as he picked up a broken barrel and threw it directly overhead at Master Blackburn, knocking him and Mrs. Wood back down to the bottom of the stairs. They did not move after that, nor would they ever move again, the candle snuffed out.
Norah turned back to the room of death. I’m in the one closest to you. Open it. Norah flipped the unlocked latch up and opened the coffin. There lay the body to her voice, protective Zadie, pale and barely breathing. Close your eyes, Norah, I must leave you in a moment. Norah closed her eyes and felt the pained presence leave her body. It left her breathless for a moment, and she fainted upon the soft dirt. Simeon heard the noise and ran toward the little room; seeing Norah on the floor, he picked her up and then noticed Zadie began to move, her eyes fluttering open. “Water,” she whispered hoarsely.
The sound of cabinets opening and chairs being moved floated from upstairs. “Anton!” Simeon shouted. “Anton! In the basement! I need water!” He set Norah down outside the room, checked her breathing, assured she was all right. Next, he lifted Zadie out of her coffin prison and set her next to Norah. Simeon kneeled in front of them but could not fathom what was going on; he just did as his heart directed.
Anton started down the stairs. “What-“ he gasped as he saw two figures prone at the bottom of the stairs, the woman bleeding, the other with his head smashed against the end of the stairwell, a piece of wood wedged in his neck. Anton nimbly moved through the open stairs, jumped over the pair, and called out for Simeon. “Simeon! Where are you?”
“Over here. Quickly! The room over here!” Simeon called. Anton was unaware this space existed but hurried toward the room. However, the miasma of death was too overpowering for him, and he feared it. “Give me the water!” Simeon ordered. Anton passed his brother the bottle filled with water, then stumbled backward away from the room and retched. He wanted to help but couldn’t go back near that room. Knowing the girls must be taken up the stairs, Anton saw the need to clear a path. He struggled and dragged the bodies of Master Blackburn and Mrs. Wood from the staircase and set them among the other trash there.
Simeon carefully propped Zadie up and gently poured some water into her mouth as he held her chin. She coughed, sputtered, and asked for more. She looked up at Simeon, then at Norah still unconscious. “Norah! Wake up, Norie! I am here now!” She took hold of Norah’s hand this time. Norah’s head wobbled up, and she looked at Zadie, smiling weakly. The bond of sisterhood and friendship would not be broken. It runs in our family.
Simeon helped Norah out first, and enlisted Anton’s aid to take her back to the main room of the house. Simeon lifted and cradled Zadie as if she were a precious doll and carried her up the stairs next, looking at her lovely face, listening to her breathing, reassuring her along the way, unafraid of fighting Death for these girls.
A few hours later, the constabulary were investigating the atrocities in the basement, and physicians were taking care of the girls. They did not ask how Norah knew of the room below or that Zadie was not dead. Those mysteries remained unanswered, unknown, unimportant. The next day the Crown assigned a new headmistress with Anton as an apprentice, and the orphaned girls were taken to a new place near Oxford where they would be taken care of and schooled as any proper young lady of the kingdom should be.
Left behind but not forgotten were the girls whose lives were cut short by greed and lust. The morgue workers were called in to take respectful care of the pine boxes left behind, bringing them up into the light as priests came to consecrate the bodies of the dead girls. The procession of horse-drawn hearses made its way through the small town, mourners along the way tossing rosemary and daisies. The gravediggers humbly provided interment in proper garden cemeteries with weeping marble angels and cherubs mingling with the spirits left behind.
There were more.